Schools May Launch Weapons Hot Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three Ventura County school districts are considering adopting a telephone hot line that would reward students who anonymously turn in weapon-carrying classmates.

Officials with the Oxnard Elementary and Moorpark Unified school districts said they hope to have the Weapon Watch program--an offshoot of the countywide Crime Stoppers system--operating as early as February.

Conejo Valley Unified School District officials also are considering the program, said Sheriff's Sgt. Kitty Hoberg.

When reporting a crime, students would dial a Crime Stoppers number and be given a secret code. Those providing tips that lead to the recovery of a weapon on campus and an arrest would receive a $50 reward.

"Kids in our schools are already reporting those crimes, and the program will make it easier for them," said James J. Suter, a trustee with the Oxnard district. "The hot line will help prevent crime on campus, because it will let kids know that they are being watched."

Most of the weapons that have been recovered in the Moorpark district were seized after tips from students.

"In the majority of cases, whenever we confiscate a knife--or any kind of weapon--is when we have been informed by students," said Frank DePasquale, an assistant superintendent for the Moorpark Unified School District. "Students are letting their teachers know who is carrying weapons on campus."

If the program gains final approval from the boards, the schools would distribute brochures informing students of how it works and how to remain anonymous.

Students would call Crime Stoppers from any telephone, including those available for personal calls at the schools. Once a call is received, Crime Stoppers would notify the local police department, which would contact school officials.

School administrators and police then would search the student or the student's locker. Because school officials have the right to inspect lockers at random, nearby lockers might also be examined.

The program was begun in Memphis, Tenn., in November, 1993, and in its first year led police to confiscate more than 300 weapons--including 115 guns--and make nearly 300 arrests at Memphis schools.

"The program certainly has been a success," said Memphis Police Capt. W.D. Cox, who helped develop the program. "We have seen a decrease in the number of weapons-related crimes in the schools, and the students have shown a lot of support and enthusiasm for the program."

Cox said the seized weapons have included semiautomatic guns, homemade bombs and knives. Callers who report knives are rewarded $50, but callers who report guns receive $100.

Once the weapon is confiscated and an arrest made, Cox said, he and a school official personally deliver the reward to the student. The rewards are paid by donations from residents in the community.

"This is the community helping itself," Cox said. "We get no federal grants, no taxpayers' money."

Before the program began, Cox said, the Memphis City School District, which serves 108,000 students, had several shootings on campus. One student was killed near a school.

Like Memphis' program, the plan in Ventura County would be administered by Crime Stoppers, a countywide nonprofit organization that residents can call to report crimes.

Officials at the Oxnard school district said they hope to put the program in all the district's elementary and junior high schools. Officials at Moorpark Unified expect the program to be implemented first at their middle schools by February.

Officials with the Conejo Valley Unified School District were not available for comment, but Hoberg said they are in the process of developing the program for their district.

School officials said the only potential pitfall of the program is that some students may take the opportunity to make prank calls, but all calls to Crime Stoppers will be checked out.

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